Japanese food with sustainable, biodegradable dishes and chopsticks

2019 Sustainability Strides at Restaurants

The latest news on reducing plastics, styrofoam and food waste in NYC and L.A.

Full-service and fast-food restaurants alike are facing legislation and public sentiment to fight environmental threats to beaches, oceans and wildlife by reducing and ultimately eliminating single-use plastics, non-biodegradable styrofoam and organic waste. Here are the latest bans and policies affecting Los Angeles and New York City operators — and eco-friendly solutions.

Reduction and Replacement of Plastic Straws

L.A. sister restaurants Connie and Ted's and Providence use Harvest Straws. Photo by Jakob Layman.
L.A. sister restaurants Connie & Ted's and Providence use Harvest Straws. Photo by Jakob Layman.

Los Angeles limited plastic straw provision to customer requests in October, following Malibu and Manhattan Beach’s bans on plastic straws and utensils in 2018. The Los Angeles Times reported in December that “L.A. council members asked the Bureau of Sanitation to look into phasing out plastic straws entirely by 2021.” Many restaurants are proactively providing alternatives beyond unpopular paper straws, including biodegradable hay, reusable metal and Harvest Straws, made from heritage grain grown in Southern California, as featured in Los Angeles Magazine.

NYC Councilman Rafael Espinal introduced a bill to ban plastic straws in food service establishments in May, following Danny Meyer’s announcement that Union Square Hospitality Group would transition to biodegradable paper.

Styrofoam Ban Status

On Jan. 1, New York City’s ban on single-use foam and plastic takeout containers and foam bowls, cups, packing peanuts and trays went into effect. Now, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is proposing a similar ban for the entire state in 2020. The statewide ban on nonbiodegradable plastic bags used for bulk items, deli meats and takeout at restaurants (in addition to widespread retail use) begins in March, following California’s single-use plastic bag ban in 2016.

In Southern California, Santa Monica banned non-recyclable food containers as early as 2008, and Long Beach began banning styrofoam over an 18-month process in 2018, with incentive programs to account for the higher cost of more environmentally friendly products.

The War on Waste

Plant Food + Wine keeps its compost box in the middle of the garden bed on its patio.
Plant Food + Wine keeps its compost box in the middle of the garden bed on its patio.

New York City Department of Sanitation hosted a public hearing on its proposal to expand an organic waste separation program in November and is still collecting feedback. The program has required stadiums and large restaurants and chains to compost since 2015 and may expand to 8,500 more food service establishments to reduce landfill waste. Restaurants site storage space, risk of attracting rats, and affordable and timely pickup services as hurdles to composting.

While the city’s program is still up for debate, a handful of restaurants voluntarily compost. Though the efficacy of its compostable packaging is caught up in controversy, trendy salad chain Sweetgreen provides compost bins for leftovers, and a Greenpoint natural wine bar, Rhodora, opened in September with a composter as part of owner Henry Rich’s zero-waste initiative.

California’s composting requirements began in 2016 with the goal of cutting statewide organic waste in half by 2020. Restaurant compliance is based on cubic yards of waste generated per week and organizations like L.A. compost offer pickup services and coordinate use with a network of partners. Restaurants with gardens, like Ray's + Stark Bar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, compost organic food waste to generate soil onsite, and Plant Food + Wine has a compost box between garden beds on its patio, with seating nearby so guests can see the self-sustaining project.

Learn more about operating a sustainable food business in ICE's Restaurant & Culinary Management program.

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